Des Moines Register 09-25-07 Leaders look for ways to help Newton recover

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Des Moines Register
09-25-07
Leaders look for ways to help Newton recover
By WILLIAM RYBERG
REGISTER BUSINESS WRITER
Angie Nichol has found life after Maytag.
A former supervisor at Maytag's call center, Nichol now works for Caleris, an
information technology company that began operations earlier this year in a part
of the former Maytag headquarters in Newton.
She manages the Newton site for West Des Moines-based Caleris, and makes
more money than she did in her old job.
"It's great," said Nichol, 36, of Newton. "I think Caleris has kind of brought a new
life to this town."
Thirty of the current 90 employees at the Caleris operation were once employees
of a former call center operated first by Maytag and then by Maytag's new owner,
Whirlpool Corp. of Benton Harbor, Mich.
But Nichols is fortunate to find a job that offers more money than her Maytag
position. ISU economist David Swenson says chances are pretty low for workers
to find comparable manufacturing jobs that pay what Maytag/Whirlpool did.
The countywide average wage was $34,400 in 2005 with Maytag jobs in the mix,
a new study by Swenson and ISU economist Liesl Eathington shows. Without the
Maytag/Whirlpool jobs, the average will drop to $29,345, Swenson said.
"It's like a $5,000 drop in the average worth of a job in Jasper County," Swenson
said. "That shows the value of those Maytag jobs."
Whirlpool bought the struggling Newton-based Maytag Corp. in March 2006 and
announced later that it would shut down all former Maytag operations in Newton,
eliminating 1,800 jobs at the former Maytag headquarters and a washer/dryer
factory. Whirlpool has decided to continue to operate a small parts-making
center, employing 15 to 20 people.
Kim Didier, executive director of the Newton Development Corp., points to
Caleris as an example of how to bring together workers' skills and company
needs to promote economic growth in the Newton area.
"You're trying to match supply and demand," Didier said.
New companies can be attracted to the area by the existing skills of the work
force, Didier said. Or, she added, community leaders can target an employer,
and then train or retrain workers with skills the employer needs.
Job creation can also involve expanding existing Newton-area companies, Didier
said.
With the final days nearing for almost all former Maytag operations in Newton,
government and community leaders continue to work on a strategy that will help
the area bounce back.
The U.S. Department of Labor awarded a $250,000 grant to Newton in February
to help develop a regional strategy. The project includes commissioning studies
of the region's economy and work force, and employing the assistance of
Neptune, N.J.-based consulting firm Maher & Maher.
The effects of the loss stretch beyond Newton and Jasper County, Didier said.
The answer to recovery is a regional strategy, she added, saying, "Newton
doesn't stand alone."
About 225 area leaders, including representatives from local governments,
school districts and community colleges, have been invited to an Oct. 1 meeting
to begin to define the region that should be involved in the effort and to choose a
leadership team.
The Iowa State University study on the Jasper County area's work force and
business characteristics was one of many efforts to help the area recover.
The study identified strengths and weaknesses in the area's economy when it
comes to attracting new or expanding businesses.
Among the weaknesses: Jasper and three nearby counties have a low
percentage of people in the prime work force age group of 25-39, compared with
the national average.
Strengths include an experienced manufacturing work force. But Swenson
doesn't foresee comparable wages.
TPI Composites of Warren, R.I., for example, is considering building a 723employee factory in Newton. The jobs would pay between $13 and $14 an hour,
compared with the average Maytag production wage of about $19 an hour.
Nichol said her job at the Maytag/Whirlpool call center would have been
eliminated in June. Nichol, however, left in February to take her new job with
Caleris.
Nichol found that her management and customer service skills transferred well.
Four other members of the Caleris center's management team are also former
Maytag call center employees, Nichol said.
Sheldon Ohringer, chief executive of West Des Moines-based Caleris, said the
company didn't establish its Newton center specifically because of the availability
of previous call center employees.
Rather, he said, Caleris was aware of the Maytag closing and attracted by the
availability of workers with solid Iowa characteristics: a good level of education, a
good work ethic and previous experience.
The Newton center is working out "better than we could have ever expected,"
said Ohringer.
Reporter William Ryberg can be reached at (515) 284-8104 or
[email protected]
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